Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Celibacy and gradable adjectives

So from one form of sexuality to another, or rather lack of any sexual activity... don't worry: it's not another autobiographical posting. A piece by Lucy Mangan in today's Guardian (That long Victoria line trip from Walthamstow to Stockwell is great for reading the papers!) looks at Robbie Williams' use of the adjective celibate, when he describes himself as almost celibate.

As Mangan puts it:

If we take the Shorter OED definition of celibacy as "the state of being unmarried", the man is clearly barking. He has, as many a recent interview attests, never found a woman with whom he could contemplate submitting to the bonds of holy matrimony and therefore cannot be almost unmarried. So one must conclude that the Robster is using the word in its more modern sense of sexual abstinence. Robbie, it seems, ain't gettin' any. Or rather, he almost ain't gettin' any.

One could phrase the pertinent question in the abstract: can one be almost celibate or is it an absolute state, an abstemious wasteland sharply delineated by the carnal woodlands abutting every border? Or one can put it more individually: is one man's "almost celibate" another man's "five-year period of being linked to some of the most desirable women in the world, including Kylie, Nicole Kidman and erm, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, but not having quite as much sex as you would like"?

Prurient interest in Tara Palmer-Tomkinson aside, it's perhaps interesting to look at the use of adjectives like celibate, certain and unique (but probably more interesting to look at posh Tara...sorry). Can we premodify these adjectives with adverbs - almost celibate, completely unique, virtually certain - when the adjectives themselves mean something in an absolute state? In other words, how can you be almost celibate when the word celibate means "completely free of sexual activity"? You either are or you aren't... or are you?

Traditionally these adjectives are referred to as non-gradable, as opposed to adjectives like lucky and happy which are gradable (really lucky, very happy etc.), but perhaps the point is that when we use adverbial modifers in front of non-gradable adjectives we're actually saying something about our own attitude to the thing being described.

An example in the recent ENA1 exam is the adjective British which you might think was an either/or description, except it's not that simple. A quick look at the press conference yesterday when the brothers arrrested for suspected terrorism offences in east London talked about their love of London and their country, might tell us that there are clearly different notions of Britishness (a clumsy abstract noun) depending on who you are and what you believe: some would say (wrongly) that you can't be British if you're a Muslim of Bangladeshi origin, while others claim a much broader definition that encompasses Owen Hargreaves, Greg Rusedski and anyone who is born here. So if we can't decide on what British means how can we say the adjective is non-gradable?

Perhaps it's not a case of being grammatically inaccurate, but of adding a subtle nuance to what we feel about the idea being described. So maybe when Robbie Williams talks of being almost celibate he perhaps means that he's only one (ahem) snog away from the barren wasteland of celibacy, close to the edge. Or maybe he just can't use grammar properly.But that isn't completely unique, is it?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Textual Analysis language frameworks

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